Washington moves to end child sex abuse lawsuit time limits

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — People who were sexually abused as children in Washington state may soon be able to bring lawsuits against the state, schools or other institutions for failing to stop the abuse, no matter when it happened.

House Bill 1618 would remove time limits that have stymied lawsuits by some people who frequently do not fully confront childhood trauma until years later, The Seattle Times reported.

The bill has passed the state House on an 82-14 vote and cleared a Senate committee last week.

Washington’s current statute of limitations requires victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits within three years of when the abuse occurred, or three years from when they discovered harms it caused, such as depression, addiction or suicidality.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, told the newspaper she’s heard story after story of survivors trying to access the justice system to hold people accountable, to be able to move on with their lives, and they can’t do that.

“This is a really meaningful way to address that,” Farivar said.

At a March 21 public hearing, supporters of the bill — including survivors, experts and plaintiff attorneys — urged lawmakers to remove the time barrier.

The move to end the civil statute of limitations follows the state Legislature’s action in 2019 to eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions of child sex abuse.

While HB 1618 received overwhelming support in public testimony, some warned it could unleash a costly barrage of lawsuits.

Tyna Ek, general counsel for the Washington Schools Risk Management Pool, said in New York, thousands of lawsuits were filed after the state in 2019 opened a new window for survivors to sue over childhood sexual abuse.

Ek suggested at the hearing that lawmakers instead consider establishing a victim compensation fund.

“If you are going to open the floodgates against public entities, like schools, … do it in a way where you set up a mechanism and you fund it,” she said.

Washington state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families is already facing 222 lawsuits over alleged abuse in foster care and other settings. The Attorney General’s Office estimates an additional 50 lawsuits per year will be filed against the department if HB 1618 is passed, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.

Backers of the bill say such costs are the price of justice, arguing the financial and emotional burden for abuse has long been carried by survivors.

“At the end of the day, it’s about accountability. It is about holding ourselves accountable when we think about our state agencies,” Farivar said.